When the movies and television have portrayed prohibition, it is generally cast through the prism of slick city gangsters, with highly organized operations that rule with brutal efficiency. Should any bumps arise along the way, or cogs in the machine slow down the river of money or booze, lethal and non-refundable means are employed to keep things running as they should. However, in John Hillcoat‘s “Lawless,” the very decision to act violently, to put your life in danger with the possibility that you can end someone else’s, is not taken lightly. “It’s not the violence that sets men apart, it is the distance he is prepared to go,” Forrest Bondurant advises his younger upstart brother Jack.
And those two, played by Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, along with Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant, form the trio of Virginian bootleggers in “Lawless.” Operating independently and successfully, the siblings suddenly find themselves defending their turf from the slimy, sneering and vicious Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) as well as local boys who decided they want a cut of their action to help maintain the peace. But the Bondurants are prepared to go the distance, with Jack’s own journey finding him contemplating the blood that has been spilled and what he will do to ensure justice is paid. It’s an entertaining and at times electric piece of work, and we recently got on the phone with Hillcoat, who talked to us from Romania where he’s shooting a Jameson Whiskey commercial, to talk about “Lawless,” subverting genre conventions, watching the film fall apart and come back together again and much more.
“Lawless” doesn’t play into the typical gangster myths
The film is based on the book “The Wettest County In The World” by Matt Bondurant, and as you might have guessed by that name, it’s inspired by a true story. But it was the atypical nature of the tale about these rural moonshine makers who found their trade by happenstance and being in the right place at the right time, that intrigued Hillcoat. “I mean the one thing that I love about the real story was the way that these people, these backwoods moonshiners were sort of called in[to the business]. Because of circumstances, suddenly there was this sort of gold rush with something that they could do,” he explained.
While traditionally, movies of this nature follow a rise marked by a spectacular fall, Hillcoat was more fascinated by the fact that the Bondurants succeeded and went on to lead productive lives. “[Bootlegging] sort of drew them into this crazy kind of world of corruption and lawlessness ironically, but then mostly they survived, they got through it all and actually went on to have businesses and children. And traditionally the gangster film teaches us that we’ve got to pay for our sins. Usually the gangster is shot down in a blaze of glory and doesn’t get up again,” Hillcoat said. “So [writer] Nick [Cave] and I loved that about the story, we also loved the idea that it sort of touched on the whole immortality that a lot of these guys start to feel when they do survive so many strange experiences.”
Immortality and invincibility aren’t exactly what they seem
Indeed, an aura of myth does hang around the Bondurants and other figures in the film as well. While Gary Oldman features as famed gangster Floyd Banner, his presence is notably smaller than you might expect. His character acts more as a representation of everything that Jack Bondurant aspires to be — powerful, rich, well dressed and commanding a leadership and authority that earns respect from those on both sides of the law (and who better to portray that than Oldman?). And for Hillcoat, both Floyd and Jack are reflections of how audiences have looked at gangsters for years.
“…the character that Shia plays…what we loved is that he’s not like his other brothers, he’s like the everyman and in many ways is like the viewer of gangster films [in that] we all love to see these guys — the badass characters like Gary Oldman who is this charismatic gangster who does everything we can’t do and would never want to do — except in the safety of the cinema,” he told us. “So we love that roller coaster ride, the thrills and chills of all of that world…the American spirit triumph[ing] over adversity and every individual standing up for their rights. [But] Jack discovers that they’re not invincible and no nation is or no individual is and I thought that was a lovely arc.”
How Tom Hardy embraced his feminine side to portray Forrest Bondurant
While the trailers play up Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant as the unshakeable foundation of the trio of brothers (which he is), in the finished film, his character is a lot more nuanced. A man of very few words, Hardy still manages to find a deep well of sensitivity in Forrest that is often surprising, but not moreso than the deadpan humor he unearths in the character as well, leading to the some of the film’s most memorable moments.
“Actually Tom brought a lot to that,” Hillcoat praised his star. “He made some audacious choices that really paid off. I mean he’s a really bold actor in that sense. He takes serious risks which I greatly admire and we always loved the idea of him exploring other sides. He’s not just this hard, haunted character, he becomes both the patriarch and matriarch of the family, because they’d lost their parents. Tom was brilliant the way he kind of embraced the matriarchal kind of more feminine side of the character…we always knew he was an inoculate character who couldn’t express himself. That’s in the story and a lot of these hard bitten, southern folk are like that. They don’t talk about their feelings in the way that modern day New Yorkers might. So there was that quality [and] Tom kind of took those ingredients and really added to them and added extra warmth and humor which we were thrilled about.”
Shia LaBeouf sought out Tom Hardy for the film
For those who have been closely following the development of “Lawless” — formerly known under the book’s original title — they’ll already know that a couple of years ago, the film has almost made with an entirely different cast. Shia LaBeouf, Ryan Gosling, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Dano and Michael Shannon were lined up to star, but the precarious nature of the economy, combined with a shift of studio thinking away from mid-budgeted films to blockbusters, kiboshed the project. However, one person stuck with the movie until it was mounted again: Shia LaBeouf.
“Shia was at a point in his career where he was very, very anxious and very keen to play a real character that he could sink his teeth in and his kind of enthusiasm for the script and my work and Nick’s work and the story was very infectious,” Hillcoat told us about the actor’s commitment to the movie. “I couldn’t see anyone else as Jack a little bit like I couldn’t not see Guy Pearce in ‘The Proposition.’ He was the very first person and I couldn’t change that at any point.”
Hillcoat also knew he had a strong actor in LaBeouf, pointing out his work in “The Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and recognizing “that there was a serious actor there.” But LaBeouf’s passion also extended to suggesting actors for the movie, including one who would land the lead. “…he independently had just happened to see ‘Bronson‘ and loved Tom Hardy and reached out to him. I just had coincidentally been drawn to Tom’s work, it had been drawn to my attention and I met Tom [doing publicity] for ‘Inception.’ So it was those sort of connections that just kept us all together.”
Key choices for the soundtrack and certain shots draw social, political and enivronmental parallels
When we caught up with Hillcoat at Cannes, he revealed that an early draft of the script featured “a montage at the beginning of the film that started with what was happening with the Mexican cartels, then rewound through the ‘80s and the Cubans and cocaine, heroin in New York, then went way back and landed on Prohibition,” something that was initially created to draw upon “a lot of parallels to today with the economic crisis, the political crisis, and the war on drugs.” But ultimately he decided it was too heavy handed and instead used a more surreptitious method to slip those ideas into the film, including certain shots and the use of the soundtrack, which features covers of The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed.